|They call this cuisine.|
It all came out over dinner. I agreed to make something quick, put the penne to boil in one pot, the broccoli and garlic and olive oil to simmer in another. When the meal was ready my children lined up like youths in a 19th century British orphanage. I ladled a serving on to each one's plate. Then the eldest made for the refrigerator
"What do you need?" I said. "I'll get it for you."
"Ketchup," she answered.
"Ketchup? For what?"
"For the pasta."
"Are you joking?"
"No." And she proceeded to grab the handle on the refrigerator door, so I stepped in front of it.
"No child of mine puts ketchup on her pasta."
"But I want to!" she cried, and then she pushed at me. I held the refrigerator door tight but she had her hands on it and wouldn't let go.
"Who does that anyway? Who puts ketchup on their pasta?" I asked while we struggled.
"Our babysitter does! She does it all the time."
I let out a sigh. "But the babysitter is an Estonian," I said. Both children looked up at me with inquisitive Finno-Ugric eyes. "Estonians are ..." I wanted to say barbarians, but I stopped myself … "Estonians don't know how to cook pasta so they boil it until it turns to glue. They don't know how to eat it, so they cut up with forks and knives. And they think that ketchup and tomato sauce are the same things because they are both red." I made a sad face and shook my head. "But, look, it's not the Estonians' fault," I said. "They just don't know any better."
"Are you done now?" the eldest one asked.
"Good, so now can get the ketchup, please?"
"Fine, you can eat your pasta with ketchup," I said. "But not in front of me because I want to be able to eat my meal without throwing up."
Neither child seemed fazed as I left the room to eat alone. A minute later, the eldest called out to me. "Daddy, there's something wrong with this ketchup! It's too spicy." I returned to inspect the scene. "Oh, well, look at that. That's just too bad," I said, holding up the bottle. "This is curry ketchup. Looks like we don't have any real ketchup left." The child had pounded a large circle of the reddish slop onto one side of her plate, I saw. Fortunately, most of the pasta had been spared.
I used to kid my Irish friends growing up about putting ketchup on their pasta, but the truth was that the local Italian communities had a civilizing effect on the other ethnic groups, so by that time they were at least putting some kind of bottled sauce on it with a name like Prego or Ragu. I am not even sure when the idea even crossed my mind that one could put ketchup on pasta. Maybe I thought it up one day, the way a child tries to conjure monsters or aliens. Imagine that. Imagine if someone would be so gross as to eat pasta with ketchup. Could you imagine?
I first saw it done with my own eyes in Denmark. The young man in the dormitory sat across from me in the communal kitchen. When I saw that he was eating spaghetti I thought him refined. But when he reached for the dreaded red condiment, and then pounded it all over the luscious steaming noodles, my heart plummeted like a pigeon egg off the Empire State Building. It was an act of desecration, like trying to fix a Mac Book with a chainsaw. It just wasn't done. But at least that barbarian wasn't my own kid!
I learned all these things as a child. I remember my mother teaching me how to twirl the pasta. It would take her hours if not all day to make sauce. Which is why I find the idea of just pounding some preservative-filled crap onto imported pasta to be so shameful. My internal sense of culinary superiority has gotten me in trouble elsewhere in this land. When asked by a tabloid about what I didn't like about Estonia, I said the obligatory consumption on all holidays of pork by products and beer. I was trying to be original! Everybody bitches about the weather. For this I was labeled a "health fascist" and accused of spitting in the eyes of the Estonian people by insulting their cuisine.
Cuisine? I thought. These poor lost Estonian souls actually think that their sausages and beer are cuisine? But I didn't say anything else. I laid low. I still want to be able to walk down the street and avoid eye contact with my neighbors in peace, like everybody else, you know. And I guess I should be less judgmental. Let the kids have their ketchup. Lead by example. Deeds, not words. This is my lot in life. Had I married a German, I'd be up to my neck in sauerkraut and bratwurst. An English and I would be sneezing tea and farting crumpets. A Greek and I would be stomping grapes and slaughtering goats. And it could be worse, right? They could be eating their pasta with mayonnaise!